Opinion - Page 2

A Sri Lankan as Cabinet Minister of United Kingdom

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Who would believe that among the Cabinet members of Prime Minister Liz Truss, is a British-born Sri Lankan, Rt. Hon. Ranil Jayawardena, the charismatic constituency MP for Northeast Hampshire.

As a Sri Lankan living in England, without a British Passport, since the World Cup in June 1966, I find it is a singular honour for my country, an accomplishment of note for Ranil Jayawardena, becoming the first ever individual of Sri Lankan parentage, to be not only appointed a Cabinet Minister but hold one of the prestigious and coveted posts, as Secretary of State for Environment. Food and Rural Affairs. The Brits know we have problems back home, but have much to offer in Britain?

Ranil Jayawardena previously served as Minister for International Trade from May 2020 to September 2022 in Boris Johnson’s government. Without much publicity, I do not need to tell my readers how much he accomplished.

No one knows how much PM Liz Truss had entrusted Ranil Jayawardena, with the delicate diplomatic work of clinching trade treaties with many nations, including with Australia, when she was Secretary of Trade, prior to being promoted by Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. She has in my opinion, rewarded him now for his track record.

A Cabinet of the Colours of Benetton or the Commonwealth?

PM Liz Truss has entrusted and appointed four ethnic minority representatives to hold the four key posts in her Government. It is not necessarily to appease the minorities?

They are the offices of Chancellor of the Exchequer, to Rt. Hon. Kwarsi Kwarteng, of Sierra Leone, the first Black Foreign Secretary; James Cleverley, of West Indian parentage; the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, Q.C, of Indian origin and the first Black Trade Secretary, Kemi Badenock of Nigerian parentage. Besides, we have others of foreign decent, holding well-deserved high posts, both in Government and H.M. Opposition.

It appears for the first time in the history of Parliament and Cabinet Government in the United Kingdom, we see a Government with Commonwealth representation, the “United Colors of Benetton” or a government entrusted to citizens of foreign parentage.

Why are so many Cabinet Ministers of foreign background

It is a well thought out and planned strategy for the Brits to entrust difficult assignments, for that matter “impossible tasks at times of crisis to people of foreign origin”. There is an adage that “the new colonial mindset of the Brits”, is to rely on the best available talent available in the country.

It has been tried and tested strategy in times past, that to get a job done, well and truly done or, “to make a task doable,” the most reliable way, is a search for talent, coupled with proven track record. The Brits are very good at spotting talent, and cultivate association.

People of foreign origin, have a habit of wanting “to better the British,” and they often perform impossible tasks, through sheer hard labour, knowledge and attention to detail.

I know from my experience, how foreigners work hard and how much they deliver against all odds.

I can also imagine how much Ranil Jayawardena will give of himself to prove “a point of delivering the impossible”, by sheer diplomacy.

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going” is a well-known adage

Prior to Brexit, we were told, “that Britain’s being shamed by an army of highly motivated East European immigrants willing to work long hours, according to a report published by the Home Office. Employers believe that immigrant workers are often harder working, reliable and motivated compared to their British counterparts. Have Britons lost the work ethic?” according to The Times.

That said, I know the job ahead of Prime Minister, Liz Truss is a thankless job. To be frank, even her Prime Ministerial post contestant, Rt. Hon. Rishi Sunak said: “he would go back to United States, “Silicon Valley” rather the contest his seat in Yorkshire Dales again.

What makes the Brits so confident that they will deliver now?

For those of us who have breathed the air and the tenacity of the Brits for over half a century now, the British have an innate feel when an impossible job is “do-able”?

They are so adept in getting anyone in the world to do the job, they think can be done.

Trustless Companions

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3 mins read

Just a few months back, it was in the news that the US authorities were considering imposing sanctions on India because of its trade ties with Russia. It was all being done as a part of US’ isolation strategy during the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine those days. Situation became more serious when India stood in the line of those 35 countries which abstained themselves from voting at the United Nations against the Russian advancement in Ukraine. Certainly the Indian decision of going against the US will and desire was not very much encouraging rather pleasing for the US authorities, military as well as political. At political level both the Democrats and Republicans raised their concerns about India’s stance of ‘going against the wind’ and it was being apprehended that this decision would create distances between the two countries. It was also in the air that the Biden administration might impose sanctions upon India under the ‘CAATSA law’ which imposes certain restrictions on the countries purchasing defense materials from Russia, North Korea and Iran. The abbreviation CAATSA stands for ‘Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act. But in spite of all these fears and apprehensions, according to some analysts, India is still the ‘blue-eyed boy’ of US and this misconception rather misunderstanding would prove a seriously painful shock to the US policy-makers, somewhere in near or far future.

Meenakshi Ahmed is a renowned expert on India-US relations. She is the author of ‘A Matter of Trust- U.S. India relations from Truman to Trump’. Recently she penned down an article in the Atlantic with the title, ‘America Has Never Really Understood India’. She said, “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has resurrected Cold War hostilities, harkening back to a world in which the United States saw itself pitted in a Manichaean struggle, facing a choice between good and evil. The U.S. is using similar rhetoric today to persuade countries to isolate and punish Moscow.” She further says, “President Joe Biden has garnered support among his NATO allies to impose crippling sanctions on Russia, but his efforts elsewhere have been only partially successful. Australia and Japan—which, along with the U.S., make up three-quarters of the Quad, a relatively new Asian-security grouping—have signed on, but India, the fourth member of the bloc, has declined to join the chorus of condemnation.” If India were a very serious and sincere partner of the US, it must have been the first one to offer all cooperation in this regard.

In March 2015, Crispin Rovere penned down an article in The Interpreter with the title, ‘India is no ally of the US’. The writer said, “As for India and the US, I find it astonishing that after more than 50 years of being repeatedly burned, some Americans still have not learned their lesson and continue insisting that China and India are ‘natural competitors’. This is false. China and India are historical competitors, but such competition is not necessarily ‘natural’ and certainly nothing like the strategic competition that exists between China and the US. After all, any Chinese expansion in the Western Pacific will be at America’s expense. It is hard to argue that India’s expansion into the Indian Ocean is being actively resisted by China. India is not a pro-Western democratic bulwark, and never will be.”

Last year on April 15, 2021, same apprehensions were expressed by Chirayu Thakkar regarding uncertainty of US-India relations in an article appeared in the Stimson. The writer said, “For the last 20 years, the United States has mostly overlooked its divergences with India in multilateral forums as the relationship paid economic, strategic, and political dividends bilaterally, whereas the costs of divergences at the multilateral level were negligible. In spite of such exceptionalism enjoyed by New Delhi, U.S. diplomats at all levels reminded their Indian counterparts that India’s “obstinate role at the UN was increasingly at odds with our emerging strategic proximity.” With a restructuring of the global order, continuous assault on rules-based order, and China’s rise as a common strategic adversary, the costs of their inability to work together in the global governance arena can be much higher for both countries today.”

‘The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World’ is no doubt a book which must be an eye-opener to all those who are misguided by the notion that India would always remain an ally of the US, keeping all its national interest aside. The book is written by India’s external affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. He has very emphatically tried to explain that India has no plan to align itself fully with either the U.S. or China. He says, “This is a time for us to engage America, manage China, reassure Russia, and bring Japan into play.” Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. In September 2021, his review on Shankar’s book was published in the Hill, in which he tried to make his readers realize that whatever Jaishankar said in his book, must not be taken for granted as he had been a former ambassador to both Washington and Beijing; moreover he is the son of Krishnaswamy Subrahmanyam who is recognized as the ‘father of India’s nuclear program’. Krishnaswamy Subrahmanyam is the person who maintained close ties with Moscow even as he was perhaps the leading advocate of the 2007 Indo-U.S. Agreement on Civilian Nuclear Cooperation. If such a well-informed and well-connected person does not find harmony in American and Indian interests, it means the actual situation is altogether different from what apparently seems. If India is not fair in its relationship with US, why US is wasting its resources on making India ‘the regional god-father’.

Public ownership of essential UK services?

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3 mins read

Public ownership of essential resources remains a dream, but is hugely popular across the political divide. According to a YouGov poll for “The Times”, half of Tory voters now want Britain’s energy companies brought back into public hands.

With the energy crisis, this should not surprise many, although some Parliamentarians would deny it. The Labour Party, however, defends proposals for the freeze on energy bills part funded by expanded windfall tax on oil and gas profits.

Public ownership of energy, water, railways and postal services privatised during the time of Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher in the 1990’s was desired to increase competition. But, times have changed and the mood of the country has undergone a seismic change, let alone the Covid 19 pandemic.

Fixed prices for goods, fair wages for workers and unfair profiteering was then seen as immoral. But today, what has happened in the past year, is the so called “failure of privatisation”?

Do people want nationalisation?

Skyrocketing of energy bills have reached the tipping point. Living standards have been squeezed. Resolution Foundation says rising energy bills will push an extra 3 million people into poverty.

This is adding pressure on Boris Johnson’s successor as Prime Minister “to beef up support” from State resources.

With prices rising faster than wages, strikes are the order of the day. With winter fast approaching, there is anxiety brewing. Food banks, people forced to take shelter in public libraries and museums, to save mounting fuel bills; Museums in turn want to close on select days to conserve energy. The incoming government of a new Prime Minister after 6 September 2022 is making life imponderable.

Stagnation due to weak productivity?

Liz Truss, the front runner to replace Johnson, was quoted as saying:
“If you look at productivity, it is very, very different in London, from the rest of the country, but basically this has been a historical fact for decades. Essentially it’s partly a mindset and attitude thing. I think it’s working culture basically.”

Critics of Liz Truss say she has ruffled feathers by describing a very real problem. To claim this is due to the innate idleness of people outside London is offensive and more important for an incoming Prime Minister – economically illiterate by their standards.

Others maintain workers in London didn’t suddenly and spontaneously decide to work harder than their counterparts elsewhere.

It is well known that in the aftermath years of the Thatcher Revolution of the 1980’s and 1990’s, there was disproportionate opportunities for wealth creation both in London and the rest of the country. Boris Johnson called it levelling up.

While only roughly 15% of UK population is based in London, with the capital capturing 30% of the country’s private sector employment, in high-wage, high-skilled professions in insurance and banking fields, we cannot blame graft as being the real problem elsewhere in the country. There were regional inequalities, regional price structures, regional dialects,
among others, to name a few.

The emphasis of Governments, Conservative and Labour over the years was for government spending in the capital, while the rest of the country was short of technological and infrastructural development. Poor transport services, old industrial base in the countryside with shut down coalmines and factory closures to boot. Capital strangulation in short. These problems were hardly highlighted.

Liz Truss hopes to bring a new era to Britain, at a time of tremendous change and unease.
She has launched an astonishing broadside against the sluggishness of the British worker, suggesting they lack the “skills and application” of foreign rivals, pitting Londoners against the rest of the country, perhaps, UK against the rest of the developed world.

Wilful misrepresentation by the media?

To force Liz Truss to lay her cards open ahead of the election to high office, she has had to undergo media scrutiny, multiple meetings, hustings, and quotations which she made when she was Chief Secretary to the Treasury, a post she held until 2019.

That was then, but now she has rightfully claimed there has been a wilful misrepresentation of her policy. But, she is steadfast, as at a recent Tory leadership husting in Perth, Scotland, she appeared to confirm she still believes “British workers are not as productive as they should be”.

The Labour Party’s rebuttal as expressed by Shadow Work & Pensions Secretary, Jonathan Ashworth states,” workers across the country are working all hours to keep a roof over their heads, put food on the table and provide for their families”.

No one denies the above, but the job of the future Prime Minister of Great Britain, is an envious job. Whoever manages to win the leadership race of the Conservative Party will have a number of challenges to contend with in the days and weeks ahead.

Britain’s economy is facing rocketing inflation, high expectation coupled with high debt and low growth, representing one of the tightest squeeze on people’s finances in decades, all during an energy crunch exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, which has sent fuel prices soaring.

The Most Important Election in the Americas Is in Brazil

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5 mins read

Former Brazilian President Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula) runs about on stage at the Latin America Memorial in São Paulo. He was there on August 22, 2022, speaking at a book launch featuring photographs by Ricardo Stuckert about Lula’s trips around the world when he was the president of Brazil from 2003 to 2010. Lula is a man with a great deal of energy. He recounts the story of when he was in Iran with his Foreign Minister Celso Amorim in 2010, trying to mediate and end the conflict imposed by the United States over Iran’s nuclear energy policy. Lula managed to secure a nuclear deal in 2010 that would have prevented the ongoing pressure campaign that Washington is conducting against Tehran. There was relief in the air. Then, Lula said, “Obama pissed outside the pot.” According to Lula, then-U.S. President Barack Obama did not accept the deal and crushed the hard work of the Brazilian leadership in bringing all sides to an agreement.

Lula’s story puts two important points on the table: he was able to build on Brazil’s role in Latin America by offering leadership in far-off Iran during his previous tenure as president, and he is not afraid of expressing his antipathy for the way the United States is scuttling the possibility of peace and progress across the world for its own narrow interests.

The book release took place during Lula’s campaign for president against the current incumbent—and deeply unpopular—President Jair Bolsonaro. Lula is now in the lead in the polls ahead of the first round of Brazil’s presidential election to be held on October 2.

Fernando Haddad, who ran against Bolsonaro in 2018 and lost after receiving less than 45 percent of the vote, told me that this election remains “risky.” The polls might show that Lula is in the lead, but Bolsonaro is known to play dirty politics to secure his victory. The far right in Brazil, like the far right in many other countries, is fierce in the way it contests for state power. Bolsonaro, Haddad said, is willing to lie openly, saying offensive things to the far-right media and then when challenged about it by the mainstream media, he tends to feign ignorance. “Fake news” seems to be Bolsonaro’s best defense each time he is attacked. The left is far more sincere in its political discourse; leftists are unwilling to lie and eager to bring the issues of hunger and unemployment, social despair and social advancement to the center of the political debate. But there is less interest in these issues and less noise about them in a media landscape that thrives on the theatrics of Bolsonaro and his followers. The old traditional right is as outflanked as the far right in Brazil, which is a space that is now commanded by Bolsonaro (the old traditional right, the men in dark suits who made decisions over cigars and cachaça, are unable to supplant Bolsonaro).

Former Brazilian president Lula attracted a crowd of 50,000 people in pre-campaign act in Teresina, Piaui, Brasil, 3 August 2022. [ Photograph: Roberta Aline/Zuma Press Wire/Rex/Shutterstock ]

Both Bolsonaro and Lula face an electorate that either loves them or hates them. There is little room for ambiguity in this race. Bolsonaro represents not only the far right, whose opinions he openly champions, but he also represents large sections of the middle class, whose aspirations for wealth remain largely intact despite the reality that their economic situation has deteriorated over the past decade. The contrast between the behavior of Bolsonaro and Lula during their respective presidential campaigns has been stark: Bolsonaro has been boorish and vulgar, while Lula is refined and presidential. If the election goes to Lula, it is likely that he will get more votes from those who hate Bolsonaro than from those who love him.

Former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is reflective on the way forward. She told me that Lula will likely prevail in the election because the country is fed up with Bolsonaro. His horrible management of the COVID-19 pandemic and the deterioration of the economic situation in the country mark Bolsonaro as an inefficient manager of the Brazilian state. However, Rousseff pointed out that about a month before the election, Bolsonaro’s government—and the regional governments—have been rolling out policies that have started to lighten the burden on the middle class, such as the lifting of taxation on gasoline. These policies could sway some people to vote for Bolsonaro, but even that is not likely. The political situation in Brazil remains fragile for the left, with the main blocs on the right (agro-business, religion and the military) willing to use any means to maintain their hold on power; it was this right-wing coalition that conducted a “legislative coup” against Rousseff in 2016 and used “lawfare,” the use of law for political motives, against Lula in 2018 to prevent him from running against Bolsonaro. These phrases (legislative coup and lawfare) are now part of the vocabulary of the Brazilian left, which understands clearly that the right bloc (what is called centrão) will not stop pursuing their interests if they feel threatened.

João Paulo Rodrigues, a leader of the Landless Workers Movement (MST) is a close adviser to the Lula campaign. He told me that in the 2002 presidential election, Lula won against the incumbent Fernando Henrique Cardoso because of an immense hatred for the neoliberal policies that Cardoso had championed. The left was fragmented and demoralized at that time of the election. Lula’s time in office, however, helped the left mobilize and organize, although even during this period the focus of popular attention was more on Lula himself rather than the blocs that comprised the left. During Lula’s incarceration on corruption charges, which the left says are fraudulent, he became a figure that unified the left: Lula Livre, “Free Lula,” was the unifying slogan, and the letter L (for Lula) became a symbol (a symbol that continues to be used in the election campaign). While there are other candidates from Brazil’s left in the presidential race, there is no question for Rodrigues that Lula is the left’s standard-bearer and is the only hope for Brazil to oust the highly divisive and dangerous leadership of President Bolsonaro. One of the mechanisms to build the unity of popular forces around Lula’s campaign has been the creation of the Popular Committees (comités populares), which have been working to both unify the left and create an agenda for the Lula government (which will include agrarian reform and a more robust policy for the Indigenous and Afro-Brazilian communities).

The international conditions for a third Lula presidency are fortuitous, Rousseff told me. A wide range of center-left governments have come to power in Latin America (including in Chile and Colombia). While these are not socialist governments, they are nonetheless committed to building the sovereignty of their countries and to creating a dignified life for their citizens. Brazil, the third-largest country in the Americas (after Canada and the United States of America), can play a leadership role in guiding this new wave of left governments in the hemisphere, Rousseff said. Haddad told me that Brazil should lead a new regional project, which will include the creation of a regional currency (sur) that can not only be used for cross-border trade but also for holding reserves. Haddad is currently running to be the governor of São Paulo, whose main city is the financial capital of the country. Such a regional currency, Haddad believed, will settle conflicts in the hemisphere and build new trade linkages that need not rely on long supply chains that have been destabilized by the pandemic. “God willing, we will create a common currency in Latin America because we do not have to depend on the dollar,” said Lula in May 2022.

Rousseff is eager for Brazil to return to the world stage through the BRICS bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), and offer the kind of left leadership that Lula and she had given that platform a decade ago. The world, Rousseff said, needs such a platform to offer leadership that does not rely on threats, sanctions and war. Lula’s anecdote about the Iran deal is a telling one since it shows that a country like Brazil under the leadership of the left is more willing to settle conflicts rather than to exacerbate them, as the United States did. There is hope, Rousseff noted, for a Lula presidency to offer robust leadership for a world that seems to be crumbling due to the myriad challenges such as climate catastrophe, warfare and social toxicity.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

Cloak-and-dagger activities in Bangladesh from front enemy lines

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4 mins read

We, the people in Bangladesh, are staggeringly keen to see the forthcoming national election be comprehensive in the country. This is absolutely our own country’s matter. But we have been observing some foreign blackguard diplomats jumping hither and thither – to media – to Election Secretariat, to NGOs like international apple-polishers of besmirched super-powers for yielding gibberish – grinding with the gums; chew without teeth and with great difficulty about dictating how to be conducted our national polls saying out loud for the purpose of his recording at their own volition or fixed or established especially by order or command of their countries leech parasites.

Their smiles are not feigned. Rather, these are all squint – cross-eyed; have strabismus smiles and may signify many ugly things behind the screen door – morally reprehensible and so, they deserve reprimand – berate, call on the carpet – censure severely or angrily by us!

Hasite tomar mukta jhorena, tumi naki kobita houna khokono (Your face does not fall with a literal smile; so, you are not a poem even).”

The clapper-claw’s playacts are like a short knife with a pointed blade used for piercing or stabbing the party in power from behind. They are convoluted in a deep-seated confederacy to fall down the government by any means. This is their principal field of moving or acting rapidly and energetically in Bangladesh. They don’t have any other jobs here.

An example: in the historical present, look furtively at a short and sharp-tongued outline or synopsis of the U.S. presidential election:

Everyone is in knows that voter fraud used to be rampant in America. In the aftermath of the 2020 election, President Donald Trump unleashed a barrage of litigation to review results in battleground states and claimed that the election was tainted by “tremendous corruption and fraud.”

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, powerful networks known as political machines typically controlled local votes, through cronyism, bribes, and an ability to get out the vote—consolidating political, social, and financial power in the hands of a few.

In the words of U.S. District Judge Lynwood Smith, who in 2011 conducted a sweeping survey of the history of voter suppression in the South, common tactics included “theft of ballot boxes; removal of polls to unknown places; burning ballots before elections; illegal arrests on election day; importation of voters who did not live in the precinct; calling off names wrongly; fabricating reasons to refuse to hold elections in precincts populated with blacks; the voting of dead or fictitious persons; ensuring that poll watchers and ballot counters became drunk while votes were counted; and organizing ‘disorderly demonstrations’ to intimidate voters.”

The allegations of fraud are basically tearing down an election institution in the U.S.

After the 2016 presidential election marred by allegations of foreign meddling, the midterm contest looms amid concerns about voter suppression in Georgia and other states as well as unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud by undocumented aliens.

Vote buying occurs when a political party or candidate seeks to buy the vote of a voter in an upcoming election. Vote buying can take various forms such as a monetary exchange, as well as an exchange for necessary goods or services. This practice is often used to incentivise or persuade voters to turn out for elections and vote in a particular way in the U.S. Although this practice is illegal in many countries such as the United States, Argentina, Mexico, Kenya, Brazil and Nigeria, it prevalence remains worldwide.

In some parts of the United States in the mid-and late 19th century, members of competing parties would vie, sometimes openly and other times with much greater secrecy, to buy and sell votes. Voters would be compensated with cash or the covering of one’s house/tax payment. To keep the practice of vote-buying secret, parties would open fully staffed vote-buying shops. Parties would also hire runners, who would go out into the public and find floating voters and bargain with them to vote for their side.

In America, voters may be given money or other rewards for voting in a particular way, or not voting. In some jurisdictions, the offer or giving of other rewards is referred to as “electoral treating.” Electoral treatment remains legal in some jurisdictions, such as in the Seneca Nation of Indians.

In the U.S., vote buying can take the form of “turnout buying”, where a broker pays to provide transport to polling locations or incentivizes members of particular demographics (with strong support for their party) to vote. While the broker has not changed the political preferences of the bought-out votes, they have nonetheless expended capital to submit (relatively) certain votes for their party to the ballot box.

The rascally outlander diplomatists don’t have any job other than dictating our country with an ulterior motive on how to conduct our national polls. They do have an undercover strong connection with their local mango-twigs to scathe the current government – conducted with or marked by hidden aims or methods in Bangladesh.

Matt Robinson examines the problems that stem from the media’s over-reliance on polls in America in his 2002 book, Mobocracy: How the Media’s Obsession with Polling Twists the News Alters Elections and Undermines Democracy. Despite some significant problems with question-wording, sampling error, and response bias, news organizations treat survey results as the Gospel. That, in turn, means pundits, the media, and voters create political narratives to justify the results. As Robinson observes, they commit the logical fallacy of reasoning from effect to cause.

2020 presidential polls in the U.S. suffered the worst performance in decades, media reports say.

The American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) task force examined 2,858 polls, including 529 national presidential race polls and 1,572 state-level presidential polls. They found that the surveys overstated the margin between President Biden and former president Donald Trump by 3.9 points in the national popular vote and 4.3 percentage points in state polls.

Polls understated the support for Trump in nearly every state and by an average of 3.3 percentage points overall. Polls in Senate and gubernatorial races suffered from the same problem.

The accuracy of issue polling could be harmed by the same problems that affected election polling because support for Trump vs. Biden is highly correlated with party affiliation and opinions on many issues.

Now we should understand their countries’ agenda for our country and our national poll procedures. Should we confer a trust upon them who have been under the cloak-and-dagger activities behind enemy lines in Bangladesh?

Lord hounds, oil your own machines for your own countries. Mind your own business; don’t pole your noses into the internal affairs of others like us.

We should keep in our mind, “One black sheep spoils the whole flock.” So, we all should raise our voices in unison against intruding into the national affairs of our country by them and their begrime countries in no time to bring about a better and peaceful society for all of us in Bangladesh. And we must not tolerate their hugger-mugger activities from behind the enemy lines on the soil of our country under any setting

Views are personal

Sri Lanka: Aragalaya has a message — Don’t shoot the messengers

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6 mins read

During a meeting in Anuradhapura recently, President Wickremasinghe, deliberately, or inadvertently and/or innocently touched on a core issue that is at the heart of the dissatisfaction people have with the political system and what it has produced over the years. He mentioned that the original spring (or ulpotha) that gave rise to subsequent political parties, (authors remark, Sinhala Buddhist oriented parties) was the United National Party (UNP). He mentioned late SWRD Bandaranaike who was in the UNP, and who subsequently formed the Sri Lanka Freedom party (SLFP), a section of which has since evolved into the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Party (SLPP) under the leadership of the Rajapaksa brothers, Chamal, Mahinda, Basil, and Gotabaya, and whose father late D A Rajapaksa had broken away from the UNP along with SWRD Bandaranaike to form the SLFP, and the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), a breakaway from the UNP, had their origins in the UNP.  In making these observations, President Wickremasinghe extolled all these parties to come together now in the country’s hour of need as they all had a common source of origin.

While all political parties must come together at this hour of need to forge a future together from the ashes of the economic debacle that the country is in, President Wickremasinghe must realise that such a coming together cannot be and must not be for a return to the status quo and to perpetuate the system that has existed since independence, as it is this system that has brought about the economic bankruptcy of the country.

The system that political leaders and political parties established and managed since independence had some successes, but many failures. The weaknesses outweighed the strengths.  In hindsight, the country can see this and should learn lessons from past mistakes. The bankruptcy of the country in economic terms is a result of the system and those who the system produced and who then managed it. Policy flip flops, absence of strategic thinking and action, huge debt based investments without assessing costs and benefits and return on investments, systemic corruption at all levels of the society, absence of a  coherent and consistent foreign policy, have all been inherent features of the political system that has failed the country. The reluctance and/or inability of political parties to get together to develop a governance policy for the next 12-18 months when the country is at the bottom of the pit is an indication of the dynamics of the political system. The next election and who acquires power is more important for the constituents of the system, than the interests of the country. This is the reality.

In this context, whatever other motives Aragalaya or some within it may have had and still have, the fundamental premise is the need to change the political system. And why? Simply, because it failed the country.

The spring or ulpotha that the UNP was, and all the rivers and rivulets that flowed from it no doubt would have had good intentions overall, but the stark fact is that they all failed. The present and coming generations do not see any light at the end of the tunnel. All they see is the system that failed them, making all possible attempts to resurrect itself.

Rather than arresting, detaining, and charging some who were associated with the Aragalaya, it would have been far more strategic and politically more prudent to have begun a discussion with the Aragalaya and encourage it to have discussions with the broader public rather than attempting to silence its voice. In saying this, there is not even a hint made that any violent action should be condoned and tolerated. However, some would view the use of the PTA, detention, and court action against protestors as nonphysical violence against them if one were to consider these means as part of the status quo, system-wise.

The following excerpt from the Daily Mirror is quoted to support the contention that the system had failed. Quote “the list of creditors in the $81 billion economy ranges from Western sovereign bondholders, who together account for the largest $14 billion slice of debt, to bilateral players such as China, Japan, and India. Then there are the multilateral lenders — the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank. The country’s outstanding foreign debt is a staggering $51 billion, with some independent economists estimating that China’s lending to Sri Lanka from 2001 to 2021 amounted to nearly $9.95 billion. Sri Lanka had a foreign debt bill of $6.9 billion that it had to service in 2022 but defaulted in April after it ran out of foreign reserves, a first in the South Asian nation’s history.

The country of 22 million currently has $300 million worth of usable foreign reserves, not enough to ensure a steady flow of food, fuel and pharmaceutical imports. The latest figures from the Department of Census and Statistics show that food inflation in July soared to 82.5% on the year “unquote.

The country’s economic bankruptcy cannot be clearer than this. It is a country surviving on debt, and with almost no assets in the form of foreign exchange reserves to buy its essentials.

When mentioning systems, it is not only the political system that is the subject of the discussion. Many parts of the administrative system, the judicial system, the law enforcement system, the prison system judging by shocking and disgusting revelations made by a recently released high-profile prisoner, are also in a state of dysfunction, with bribery and corruption permeating to these as they have to the political system.

Sinhala Buddhist hegemony has become even more evident and a stronger influence in the outcome of elections leading to who governs and who does not. There is increasing evidence of Muslim extremism from a Sri Lanka perspective, with more fundamentalist Wahabism taking hold in in the country and amongst Muslims. Christian church groups outside of the more traditional Catholic, Anglican and Methodist groups have spread and have become stronger. One needs to question whether strengthening of Sinhala Buddhist hegemony has been a consequence of other religious denominations veering more towards orthodoxy and fundamentalism or whether it has been the other way about. There is confusion as to where the Egg is and where the Chicken is.

The political system, and in a general sense, the politicians it has produced, one inextricably linked to the other, and the unquestioning attitude of voters, their expectation of maximum governmental interference in economic affairs of individuals and society, the opposite of a laissez-faire system, has contributed to short term politics and who gets their vote in return for small handouts. The political literacy of the public, in a general sense, has been questionable as they have been averse to considering and accepting a middle ground economic model.

In this climate, and context, unless the politicians of today take the lead to metamorphose themselves and the system, and learn lessons from the likes of the Aragalaya, the system could well be replaced by something else which everyone may come to regret later. Persecuting people associated with the Aragalaya is not the answer. Listening to their message, and the message of many who are very likely a silent majority, is the answer.

In effect, the current political system distances people from governance, and pays only lip service to the adage that democracy is about electing governments for the people by the people. No doubt there are no perfect democracies, and some might agree with the Churchillian adage that democracy is the least bad system of governance.

The purpose of mentioning these dysfunctional state of affairs is to pose the question where Sri Lanka is with human rights, moral and ethical conduct in all aspects of governance despite its 74 year post independence history, and the much publicized Sinhala Buddhist majority heritage.

If one takes the view that the political system is at the pinnacle of all systems considering its role in political governance, it would not be out of place here to conclude that the root of the cancer has been and still is the political system. Unfortunately, this cancer appears to have spread to all other parts of overall governance, and it is questionable whether it is possible to excise the cancer from the primary source of the eventual spread, the political system. Even if it were possible, leaving such a task in the hands of politicians themselves would be stupid and a guaranteed failure.

A new Aragalaya, comprising of as many non-partisan political bodies and personnel functioning as opinion facilitators amongst the public, should lead the task of exploring a new political system for the country. While some are calling for elections, it will not address the critical need to change the governance system that has brought the country to where it is now. Without a change to the system, it will continue to produce the kind of politicians who have governed the country so far and brought it to where it is today. The political literacy of the public too needs advancement, and this should be led and facilitated by a new breed of politicians as well as by religious and society leaders. The same machine will produce identical sausages. The machine must be changed to produce different sausages. A crude analogy, but a logical one.

A new system that focuses on long-term planning carried out by experts in economic, agricultural, energy, health, education and social areas, which provides equal rights to everyone, including women, which recognizes the ethnic and religious diversity of the country without any one segment of the society labeled as more equal than others, which ensures all citizens are equal before the law and which ensures that adherence with the law of the land entertains no compromise, which has strong punitive measures against bribery and corruption, and which provides for a political governance council drawn from all levels of the society and which devolves administrative governance to peripheral levels, are some features that a future governance model could consider.

One does not need to be an Einstein to say that it would be foolish to expect different results if one continues to do the same thing.

The “Canary in the coalmine” in UK’s energy market?

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2 mins read

Those of us in Sri Lanka having never seen a coalmine, but most often have canaries as pets in our homes, may wonder what understanding of the real meaning of this English idiom, has to connect with the energy. But we also know an idiom is a group of words, which together assume new and different meanings, in the spoken word. 

Native speakers use idioms in everyday conversation, but the idiosyncrasy is when Brits use idioms to impress foreigners. It is as a technique to show their superiority. But, when Sri Lankans use quotations to impress foreigners of our mastery of the English language, we sometimes show our literary incompetence, but more often our lack of historical perspective. 

“Canaries in a coalmine” is an idiom especially apt today because coal is a fossil fuel which when burned, produces greenhouse gases, contributing to Earth’s warming. Thus its connection to what we call “climate change”. 

In simple language, this idiom refers to someone or something that is an early warning of danger.

Energy poverty 

The talk of the town today in England, in fact in UK and in Europe, is how much we are unprepared of the fuel price inflation, which now fuels inflation. Everyone connects it with Russia and the Ukrainian war. But we hardly understand how it is associated to the greed of the multinational energy suppliers who used energy prices, to boost their shares and in turn provide lucrative dividends to their shareholders.  

From what we can make out, it has been coming for years, well beyond the pandemic. We saw small energy companies mushroom in this energy supply market, offering customers cheap energy, over the years. 

Small energy providers, some from US, and dozens from UK and Europe did spring up boosted in the 1990s when the UK Government relaxed the rules around energy supply to consumers. We were told to shop around for cheap energy.

Over the past year, however, many of these very small suppliers hit the buffers and went bust. Customers were moved to larger more dependable sources/suppliers. When the larger suppliers, the likes of EDF Energy of France, and say Shell Energy, managed to cream off the market price for their existing customers, well in advance, the problem started. 

What they were not planning to cope with was the huge increase in the number of customer households, thus causing them to buy additional energy, to cope with demand at much higher prices than the prevailing market price.

This caused an increased cost of buying energy for thousands, if not millions of new customers at wholesale prices. What these larger energy providers added a new ingredient, a fixed amount called a Daily Standing Charge? This fixed charge was irrespective of the amount of energy used by households. 

This was a bonus to suppliers/providers of Energy, both gas and electricity. This was unfair especially to customers with low usage. People on the one hand were warned to conserve energy, with all the noise of “climate change”. Simultaneously customers who acted to save energy by lowering their usage were clobbered with new and additional charges. 

Fleecing the poor     

Ofgem, the independent UK’s National Regulatory Authority regulated the monopoly companies which run the gas and electricity networks, acting in the interests of the consumers, as well as helping the industries to achieve environmental improvements. Its role was to protect consumers by working to deliver a greener, fairer energy system. 

Ofgem became jittery of the balance between the interests of customers and the interests of the mighty, near monopolistic energy providers.

The Energy Ombudsman was an independent organisation, appointed by Ofgem to investigate consumer complaints and facilitate compliance of energy supplies. This was the recourse available for hard-hit customers?

Cause of energy inflation

One of the real causes for energy bills going through the roof this winter is the lack of foresight on the part of the Energy Suppliers and the Government. October 2022, is the date the existing “price cap” is removed. No one will now admit that this winter’s fuel bills will make for fuel poverty – the poor, much poorer.

Remission Awarded To The Rapists

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3 mins read

What else could be more brutal than gang rape of a pregnant woman and murder of seven members of her family including her toddler daughter? That was 3 March 2002 and it all happened in a village near Ahmedabad India during the Gujarat Riots. The name of that 21-year-old unlucky Muslim woman is Bilkis Bano. 11 convicts were sentenced to life imprisonment for that brutality; now on India’s76th Independence Day, they all have been released by the Gujarat government under its remission policy.

Mockingly the culprits had to stay in Godhra jail for 15 years for their heinous crime. And more pathetic is the fact that the released culprits were given a very warm rather passionate welcome by their relatives and friends outside the Godhra jail. According to the Hindustan Times, a committee was formed a few months back to look into the matter of the 11 convicts which unanimously recommended ‘the remission of all the 11 convicts in the case. Later the recommendations were sent to the state government for final approval which issued the orders for their release. Injustice leading to cruelty, suppression and violation of basic human rights has been the most grievous issue of Indian society at the hands of the government. Though a large portion of the Indian society comprises people having a very moderate approach towards life a handful of extremist mindsets is also always there; unfortunately that extremist mindset is getting stronger and stronger and prevailing over the whole society simply because of the support and supervision of the BJP government.

Whatever happened there in the Illegally Indian Occupied State of Jammu Kashmir on 5th August 2019 is the worst example of the unethical and immoral support and supervision provided to the extremist element by the BJP government. That was the day when India took a very inhuman step against the people of the Illegally Indian Occupied Jammu and Kashmir by abrogating Article 370 and Article 35-A. Article 35A of the Indian Constitution was an article that empowered the Jammu and Kashmir state legislature to define “permanent residents” of the state and provide special rights and privileges to them. These privileges included the ability to purchase land and immovable property, the ability to vote and contest elections, seeking government employment and availing of other state benefits such as higher education and health care.

Non-permanent residents of the state were not entitled to these privileges even if they were Indian citizens. The female permanent residents would be deprived of these privileges if they married someone out of state; said to Article 35-A. On 5 August 2019, the President of India Ram Nath Kovind issued a new Presidential Order which nullified Article 35-A and took back all privileges earlier given to the people of Jammu-Kashmir State. The helpless people of the State raised their protesting voices against that abrogation but their voices were crushed by using military force.

After the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35-A, things are now at their worst in the Jammu-Kashmir valley. The Territory was given a special autonomous status through Article 35-Aand all the provisions of the Indian Constitution, which were applicable to the Indian states did not apply to the territory. Due to this Article, Jammu and Kashmir was a region, that (despite being a part of the Indian Union under the so-called Instrument of Accession) enjoyed a separate constitution, flag and official language. It was only because of this Article that except for defence, foreign affairs, finance and communications, the Indian Parliament needed the concurrence of the so-called government of Jammu and Kashmir. Moreover, the abrogated Article debarred non-Kashmiris from acquiring property and jobs in government institutions in the territory.

According to various media reports, since 5th August 2019, more than 2 million non-local voters have been added to the voters’ lists in IIOJK. Experts are of the opinion that this new induction to the list of voters would simply change the demographics of the State and directly affect the right of self-determination of the native residents of the valley. This unfair addition of non-locals to electoral rolls will enable BJP &RSS to implement their fascist agenda more emphatically. Ultimately the fascist Modi government shall succeed in installing a puppet BJP Chief Minister in IIOJK to subjugate the masses. More shocking is the fact that India is doing all that injustice by violating the UNSC resolution and disregarding international norms. It seems no one is there to stop this ‘genocide’ and even the so-called ‘international peacekeepers are providing support to the Indian hegemonic designs with their criminal quietness. Silence over injustice in itself is a heinous crime and it simply encourages the ‘future criminals’.Providing favour and support to any criminal simply means encouragement of crime. The unjust remission ‘awarded’ to the criminals involved in the gang rape of Bilkis Bano would encourage other rapists behind the bars and they all would wait anxiously for the Independence Day of India every year.

Views are personal

Sri Lanka: Time to Initiate PDS

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3 mins read

Sri Lanka has a long way to go before resolving its economic problems, President Ranil Wickremesinghe warned in his original policy statement earlier this month. The situation is still grave, and it is no exaggeration when Ranil says it is his duty “to light even one lamp rather than cursing darkness”.

He is still pursuing the plank of political unity to tide over the crisis collectively. His statement underlines the challenges the government has to overcome before setting the economy right: “Our country suffered disputes due to disunity. We were divided into ethnic groups. Divided into languages. Divided into religions. Divided into parties. Divided into classes. Divided geographically. Divided by castes… Ever since I entered politics, I wanted to create a society with a Sri Lankan identity. I suffered political defeats. I was criticised by extremists because of my continued stand against extremism, and bigotry. Some political parties slandered me as a racist. However, I will not deviate from my principle, from my policy.”

Inspiring words, but does it stand the test of actual governance? Though relatively peaceful at the time of Independence, the country soon plunged into civil wars, which made Sri Lanka one of the most notorious killing fields of the world—with Sinhalese killing Sinhalese, Tamils killing Tamils and the State killing all—Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. Ranil’s tall claims remind me of W H Auden’s words: “Beware of words. For with words we lie. We say peace when we mean war.”

With India, especially Tamil Nadu, rising to the occasion spontaneously, the government and people of Tamil Nadu rightly feel that food grains, fuel, milk powder and life-saving medicines should reach the neediest and most vulnerable sections of the population.

Recently, I received an email from a good friend, which makes for painful reading. To quote: “In the ubiquitous petrol queues—now all over the urban areas—mafia-like ruffians intimidate the innocent in the line-ups and sell petrol given by the Government at SLRs 250 per litre at SLRs 2500 and more. They force their ways, out of the line into the queues, again and again, to continue their brazen black-marketing on their own people, at a time of great suffering.”

The need of the hour is for India and the international community to persuade/pressurise Sri Lanka to introduce the Public Distribution System (PDS) throughout the country. With all its pitfalls and shortcomings, the PDS works satisfactorily in all parts of India, especially in Tamil Nadu.

The PDS was introduced during the Second World War when there was artificial famine throughout India created by the British colonialists. The PDS is a system of distributing essential commodities to the most vulnerable sections of society under the control of government departments and agencies at an affordable price. Thanks to the admirable zeal and commitment of civil servants like A D Gorwala, the Bombay Presidency was saved from famine. Even in native states, the PDS was introduced. In my hometown, Ernakulam, capital of the Cochin State, the

Maharaja not only introduced rationing but also made arrangements for serving standard vegetarian meals in government-run restaurants for four annas (25 Naya Paise). Textiles were scarce, and the ration shops distributed cheap cloth to the needy. The imported rice was stinking, but the people survived those difficult days because they were convinced that the government was doing its best to serve the people.

The PDS involves twin tasks—1) Procurement of essential items through imports and local procurement and 2) Its distribution through fair price shops or what we call ration shops in India. It is the duty of the Central government to implement these tasks. The items to be imported should be identified in advance, and they should be stored in warehouses spread throughout the country. It is essential to store an additional quota of food grains and essential items to meet unexpected contingencies like famines and floods.

In the Sri Lankan situation, the items include food grains, milk powder, sugar, and kerosene. As far as life-saving medicines and medical equipment are concerned, these should be handed over to the International Red Cross for distribution to the hospitals. It will be a good idea if the Government of Tamil Nadu volunteers to provide medical facilities, including surgery, to needy people. They could be airlifted to Chennai and treated in local hospitals.

Sri Lanka never had a PDS. According to the information I gathered, essential items are distributed through the Divisional Secretariat, a wing of the Central government. In order to strengthen participatory democracy, Sri Lanka requires strengthening the provincial governments, which came into existence as a result of the 13th Amendment. The opening of ration shops, distribution of essential items to the needy, and recruitment of personnel to carry out the public distribution should come under the provincial government, just as it is in India. A ration shop could be opened for every 5,000 families if one considers the Tamil Nadu example. Each ration shop employs four or five people. In recruiting this personnel, preference could be given to women who have been widowed, differently abled persons and refugees who have returned to Sri Lanka.

In the present situation, where unemployment is very high, the start of PDS will greatly boost the economy. The need of the hour is the constitution of an expert committee, which should visit Tamil Nadu to study the situation and make positive recommendations, avoiding the pitfalls of the Tamil Nadu experiment.

Views are personal

Let’s All Kill Tchaikovsky

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4 mins read
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“There is no more Swan Lake…Tchaikovsky is out”.  Olesia Vorotnyk, a Ukrainian ballerina who took up an AK 47 to defend Ukraine

I came across this intriguing story in  The Economist of July 2nd, 2022, of a dancer with Ukraine’s national ballet – 30 years old – and a professional dancer since 2009  who had lost her husband in a conflict east of Ukraine 3 years ago.  When the “new war” began in February she had to do something, and she took up the gun; gave up her ballet and took a position at a checkpoint. The Economist quotes Ms. Vorotnyk as saying: “ There was this great myth of great Russia and its great army…we see the truth: they come here to steal our toilets…I wonder if those Russians read Pushkin”.

I have every respect for Ms. Vorotnyk ’s rationale and noble intent.  Whether she intended to or not, she was adhering to Article 51 of the United Nations Charter which says inter alia: “nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations”.

But her mention of Pushkin got me first to think, and then to wonder about war, culture, and national dignity.  Alexander Pushkin, widely acknowledged as the father of Russian literature, posited that there was a compelling need for Russian cultural, economic, and political development to blend harmoniously the thinking of  “Slavophiles” and “Westernizers.” – who followed two schools of thought – the former being anchored on the unique national characteristics of Russia, and the latter being based on the global or Western approach.  Pushkin thought that the two philosophies should be symbiotic and should form one and the same approach by the Russians.

Doubtless, some Russians, particularly those who initiated and carried out the invasion, might consider Pushkin “old hat” in the modern world of ideologues, populism, and autocracy which Gideon Rachman so eloquently elaborates in his book The Age of the Strongman.  Some might even argue that it’s justified to think that Pushkin’s vision is archaic.  What causes me amazement is that even some of us “Westernizers” in the Western world think and act so.  Alarmingly, as a reprisal to the Russian invasion, some have eschewed all forms of Russian culture (particularly music, ballet, drama, and other fields of fine arts) cancelling pre-booked performers by Russian musicians, performers, and conductors in their countries.

Classic FM Digital Radio reported that “All Russian participants have been banned from Dublin Piano Competition, prompting one performer to exclaim “I’m just curious how this will help to stop the war!” In another case, 20-year-old prodigy  Alexander Malofeev had his piano recital at Vancouver Recital Society cancelled.

Prominent figures have lost their jobs because they did not make public statements against the invasion.  Conductor Valery Gergiev, chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic, was fired for this reason as he refused to issue a statement condemning the invasion and ensuing consequences endured by  Ukraine. Yet another luminary,  Tugan Sokhiev —considered by some as Gergiev’s protege — left his post as music director of the Bolshoi Theater after feeling growing pressure to make a statement.

Thomas Sanderling, the conductor who headed the Novosibirsk Philharmonic Orchestra resigned his position in protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  However, he has been vocal in protesting against a blanket boycott of Russian art and artists, saying he feels it’s unfair to impugn cultural figures who do not speak out against the Russian invasion when requested and that it is unjust to terminate their services ipso facto. Sanderling said: “It is important to have a position, but it can’t be demanded. I think it’s a matter of individual choice. I know that many artists in Russia are disturbed, that they are expected to absolutely take a stand. And I think it’s also part of our European culture to recognize the right of the individual to speak out on an issue or not.”

Asking a civilian and non-actor in a war to make a public statement under pain of termination of his services which is calculated to cause adverse effects to his career and livelihood is an asinine thing to do.  It borders on incoherent buffoonery and counter-intuitive revenge and vindictiveness based on a complete misapprehension of what war is.  The defining quality of intelligence is that it should make a point, and this attitude just doesn’t.  War is a state of armed conflict between different States or different groups within a nation or State. War is not a state of armed conflict between nations – which are the people of a State.  It is indeed regrettable that modern-day warfare targets civilians as well as States as a result of a perceived and purposely contrived misapprehension incapable of differentiating between the State and the Nation.

Such feckless thinking is the philosophical antithesis of democracy and a rules-based international order. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights – adopted for the people of the world –  which commences its Preamble with the words “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”, goes on to say in Article 2; “ Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”.

Furthermore, the Declaration continues, no distinction must be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional, or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty”. While Article 6 of the Declaration gives everyone the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law, Article 23 gives everyone the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

History records many instances where nations have helped nations in need – a phenomenon that can be seen around the world even at the present time.  One of such moments that stands out in history is reflected in the speech made by J.R. Jayawardene, then Finance Minister of (then) Ceylon at the 1947 signing of the post-war San Francisco Treaty, who refused to accept compensation for harm caused by the Japanese, saying that Ceylon did not intend to accept compensation as the Ceylonese nation believed in the words of the Great  Teacher [Buddha] whose message has ennobled the lives of countless millions in Asia, that hatred ceases not by hatred but by love. He ended the speech by saying “We extend to Japan the hand of friendship and trust that … her people and ours may march together to enjoy the full dignity of human life in peace and prosperity”.

It was clear that Minister Jayawardene had a sage understanding of the distinction between State and Nation. Perhaps we should too.